It's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your children are?
From the instant our kids are born, we worry about their wellbeing any time they're out of our sight. And as the infant and preschool years give way to the pre-teen and high school years, our worries shift from fears of child abduction to concerns about what sort of trouble our kids may be getting into on their own.
So what if you could find out precisely where your children are at any given moment? Global positioning system technology -- the same GPS we rely on to help us navigate from place to place -- is now available in tracking devices that can hook on to a stroller, wrist, backpack or bumper, sometimes without the child's knowledge.
While the technology itself is nothing new (GPS has been used by the military since the late 1970s and by civilians since 2000), a steady decrease in both the size and the price of GPS trackers has increased their potential for everyday use. It's difficult to say exactly how many parents are keeping an electronic eye on their kids, but judging by the sheer number of GPS tracking products targeted to parents -- iPhone and Android apps, vehicle tracking systems and clip-on devices of every shape and size -- it appears that there's no shortage of demand for gadgets to help us track our children's comings and goings.
Prices range from as low as $50 plus monthly or per-use service fees for a simple device that transmits a location signal upon request to upwards of $900 plus monthly service fees for a sophisticated "covert" tracking kit designed to be concealed in a teenager's car, where it will record and transmit location and speed in real time, with accuracy of up to 8 inches and one quarter mile per hour, respectively.
But just because you can track your kids, does that mean you should? What are the legal and ethical ramifications of spying on your children? We've come up with five possible scenarios in which you might be tempted to use a GPS tracker for your kids. Would you do it? Read on and decide.
Children with Special Needs
The best argument we've found for using a GPS tracker is in the case of children who have mental or behavioral disabilities. Children with autism, for example, frequently wander away from home or flee their caregivers, leaving these children especially vulnerable to injury, emotional trauma, exposure to the elements and drowning.
The National Autism Association recommends using tracking technologies such as GPS trackers or radio frequency (RF) transmitters to help prevent wandering and to help locate lost individuals, but the organization also warns against relying too heavily on any device to safeguard your child. GPS trackers provide great accuracy and range, and many offer a "geo-fence" feature that alerts parents if the child steps outside a predefined perimeter, but the devices have relatively short battery life and their satellite signal can be obstructed by things like hills, trees, tall buildings and heavy cloud cover.
RF devices have a shorter range, but they are typically waterproof and have a much longer battery life than GPS units. But while GPS trackers allow you to follow the wearer's location on your own PC or smartphone, an RF system requires multiple receivers to pinpoint the transmitter's position. For this reason, RF transmitters are often made available to at-risk children and adults through safety programs facilitated by local law enforcement agencies.
GPS trackers have the potential to be truly lifesaving for children with special needs, but are they necessary for kids who are less likely to roam?
Trips and Outings
Even if your kids aren't prone to running off, it can be difficult to keep track of them in a crowded setting like a ball game, amusement park, parade or even a shopping mall. If you're heading out with young children, you may find that slipping GPS trackers into their pockets or putting a tracking bracelet around an ankle or wrist provides some peace of mind. Just be sure that you choose a device that provides real-time location data (as opposed to recording information to be uploaded and reviewed later), can be tracked on your smartphone and is accurate to within a few feet.
You might also be tempted to consider a GPS tracker for outings such as a wilderness camping trip or a long hike, and, not surprisingly, there are devices designed for those adventures, too. One model, the Spot Satellite GPS Messenger, lets your child send an "I'm OK" or "Send Help" message with the push of a button, even in remote areas with no cell phone signal.
If there's no wilderness expedition in your immediate future, you may be concerned about potential dangers in your own neighborhood. Can GPS trackers help?
Sure, our parents and grandparents love to remind us how they walked 3 miles to school, through sleet and snow, uphill both ways, but these days it's more common for parents to wait with their kids at the bus stop in the morning and meet them there again in the afternoon. But if your child sometimes walks to school, waits alone for the bus or bikes to a friend's house, you may have considered using a GPS tracker to confirm that he makes it safely there and back.
It's comforting to think that a simple device could help to save your child from potential predators, but whether a GPS tracker is effective in this situation depends largely on whether the abductor discovers the device. Many trackers are worn like wristwatches or attached to a backpack in plain sight. And while some GPS trackers will send an alert if the device is clipped or removed, you won't be able to follow a trail if the gadget is left behind. One sobering statistic to consider: According to the Nemours Foundation, only 25 percent of children who are abducted are taken by a stranger. Most are taken by a family member or other close acquaintance who may very well know that the child has a GPS tracker.
If you've set a geo-fence perimeter on your child's GPS tracker, you'll be alerted any time the tracker crosses that boundary, so that alert could give you a head start in the unlikely event that someone does attempt to abduct your child. The bottom line: GPS trackers are not a substitute for adult supervision, and you may run the risk of giving yourself a false sense of security -- or giving your kids an exaggerated fear of being abducted.
Next up: Can GPS trackers keep your kids safe when they're in the care of someone you know?
Second-guessing Your Sitter
Ever since "nanny-cams" arrived on the scene, there's been debate over the legal and ethical consequences of spying on your babysitter. Is it ever OK? Are you obligated to tell your sitter that she's being watched?
Unlike cameras, GPS trackers can't show you what your child and your sitter are doing; they can only show you where the tracking device is. Some covert GPS trackers are designed to clip onto the bottom of a stroller, allowing you to keep tabs on your child without the caregiver's knowledge. Aside from the outright creepiness of keeping tabs on another adult without her knowledge, if you have reason to suspect that your sitter is taking your child on illicit adventures instead of to the playground, you probably need a new nanny more than you need a GPS tracker.
Our first four scenarios involve children who would presumably want to be found if lost, whether or not they're aware that you've outfitted them with a GPS tracker. But what about an age group that's notorious for hiding things from their parents? Is it ever OK to GPS track your teen?
The day a teenager starts driving may well be the most terrifying day of a parent's life. You've survived the driving lessons, you've talked until you're blue in the face about the dangers of speeding and driving recklessly, and you've laid down the ground rules about where your teen may go, and when. But once they pull out of the driveway on their own, all you can do is hope that they've listened. For some parents, a GPS tracker offers a way to maintain a bit of control -- or the illusion of control -- over a scary situation.
Legally, you're probably entitled to track your teen, with or without her knowledge, and U.S. courts have consistently upheld a parent's right to exercise broad control over minor children. But just because it's legal doesn't mean it's a good idea, and your teen may very well view the surveillance as an intrusion on his or her privacy and a breach of trust.
Ethical issues aside, it's unclear how successful GPS devices are at tracking teens or preventing dangerous behavior. GPS trackers that record both driving speed and location could potentially deter young drivers from taking risks behind the wheel, but it's also entirely possible for your teen to drive 35 miles per hour to the library, where he'll park his "bugged" car and hop into a different vehicle with friends.
Parents may find GPS trackers to be useful as part of a probationary period as they reestablish trust in teens who have habitually been truant or otherwise disobedient, but in the end, an electronic device is no substitute for honesty on both sides of the relationship.
HowStuffWorks finds out what 'Hour of Code' is all about and how it can help children and adults learn about computer programming.
More Great Links
- BrickHouse Security. "Livewire FastTrac Covert GPS 120-Day Kit." (Feb. 18, 2012) http://www.brickhousesecurity.com/realtime-gpstracking-device.html
- Davidson, Andy. "Family spies." Brand Strategy. Issue 195. Page 8. Sept. 2005. (Feb. 20, 2012) [accessed through MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost] http://ehis.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=867b92cc-14b6-4b57-bcf1-0e9ee1ff1b2c%40sessionmgr13&vid=2&hid=5
- GPS Magazine. "The Ultimate Child-Tracker Buying Guide." April 6, 2010. (Feb. 18, 2012) http://www.gpsmagazine.com/2010/04/gpsmagazines_2010_child_tracki.php
- Moon, Brad. "Would You Track Your Kid by GPS?" Wired.com. Jan. 11, 2010. (Feb. 18, 2012) http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2010/01/would-you-track-your-kid-by-gps/
- National Academy of Sciences. "The Global Positioning System: The Role of Atomic Clocks." (Feb. 18, 2012) http://www.beyonddiscovery.org/content/view.page.asp?I=1275
- National Autism Association. "Tracking Technology." (Feb. 18, 2012) http://www.awaare.org/trackingtechnology.htm
- The Nemours Foundation. "Preventing Abductions." (Feb. 18, 2012) http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/outdoor/abductions.html
- Roberts, Stephen N. "Tracking Your Children With GPS: Do You Have the Right?" Findlaw.com. (Feb. 18, 2012) http://library.findlaw.com/2003/Dec/1/133470.html
- Shmukler, Chad. "How to Track/Find Your Child's iPhone Using GPS." iPhoneFAQ.org. June 13, 2010. (Feb. 18, 2012) http://www.iphonefaq.org/archives/97949
- Smith, Tovia. "Technology Lets Parents Track Kids' Every Move." NPR.org. Aug. 29, 2006. (Feb. 18, 2012) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5725196